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The following article appears in the February issue of Lacrosse Magazine and highlights the US Lacrosse effort to lead the lacrosse community in embracing a new player development model.
In 2009, USA Hockey noticed a disturbing trend. More than 40 percent of its beginning players were quitting the sport by age 9. Something had to be done. USA Hockey introduced the American Development Model (ADM), an approach that emphasized fun and made hockey a part of a child’s athletic experience, not the entire experience. It worked.
According to research from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), the number of children aged 6 to 12 playing sports dropped from 35 percent to 27 percent from 2007 to 2014. Traditional sports such as baseball, basketball, football, soccer, softball and track and field saw a combined drop of 2.6 million children participating during a five-year stretch from 2008 to 2013.
But hockey grew its participation rate more than 43 percent in the study, one of just a handful of sports to see growth. With a 29-percent growth rate during that time, lacrosse also came out on the plus side, but the sport is far from immune from many of the same problems hockey faced.
After enjoying years of double-digit percentage growth in participation, the increase in number of players has fallen below 10 percent in four of the last five years, according to US Lacrosse’s annual participation report.
There are a number of factors at play — increased costs, early specialization to a single sport, injury concerns, overemphasis on winning and a lack of fun among the reasons for a decline in participation in the youth sports landscape.
So what do we do?
USA Hockey’s success has been a model that the United States Olympic Committee has championed national governing bodies to emulate, and US Lacrosse is doing just that. In September, the US Lacrosse Board of Directors formally endorsed the Lacrosse Athlete Development Model (LADM). The model aims to "square the pyramid" of lacrosse player development by keeping more people with the sport for a longer period of time, widening the pool of candidates at the elite level, while also increasing participation at all levels.
"Everyone has said this has to be done," said Erin Smith, director of education and training at US Lacrosse. "There are a lot of hurdles with early recruiting, the tournament scene and kids being pushed to specialize early, but people have told us this is the right thing for the kids and the sport."
Thinking Small — And Why it Works
Melissa Rausch is the girls’ lacrosse coach at Rampart (Colo.) High. A few years ago, she inherited a program short on wins and players, but has turned it into one of the best in the state. Last year, her team went 12-5, won its league for the first time in more than a decade and made it to the state quarterfinals before losing by one goal to traditional power Cherry Creek.
"The reason we got so good so fast was the number of reps they’re getting in our practices," said Rausch, also the senior girls’ manager for the Central Region for 3d Lacrosse.
There are no full-field scrimmages at Rampart practices. Middle school, junior varsity and varsity teams share the same field. Everything is downsized — fewer players in a smaller field space — to maximize the efficiency of the practice.
"They’re easily getting so many more touches," Rausch said. "We’ll go from 1-v-1 to 5-v-5. They’re forced to make decisions faster. They figure out how to make cuts and find open space."
Marc Moreau, the head coach at Saint Joseph (N.J.) High in Metuchen, N.J., has averaged more than 14 wins per season over the last decade. He estimates that less than five percent of his team’s practice time involves full-field scrimmaging. One of the drills he finds most effective, commonly called the West Genny drill, brings all of the elements of small-sided play together.
"One of the coaches’ favorite drills, and the kids’ favorite drill, is when you bring the goals in close and have a continuous 3-on-2," Moreau said. "It’s everything — defense, transition defense, communication, transition offense, drawing and dumping. It teaches the defense to force the offense to make more passes."
So if small-sided competition works for skill development at the high school level, wouldn’t it be a better way to introduce the sport at the younger age groups?
"As we talked to people around the country about the Lacrosse Athlete Development Model, small-sided games bubbled to the top," Smith said.
US Lacrosse has developed guidelines for boys and girls for small-sided games, the first priority in rolling out the LADM. Building off small-sided principles already utilized in certain parts of the country, it’s a blueprint for leagues and organizations to prepare their players for the eventual transition to full-field competition.
In addition to fewer players and a smaller field space, the guidelines include softer balls and simple rules designed to make the experience fun while providing players the opportunity to develop skills. Cathy Reese, coach of Maryland’s two-time NCAA champion women’s lacrosse team, saw it work for her daughter.
"I totally agree with kids playing small-sided games, as it gives them each a chance to be involved," Reese said. "It’s easy to hide on a large field."
Geronimo Lacrosse, a youth program in the Richmond, Va., area, has been running small-sided games for years.
"It’s an idea grounded in common sense," said Andrew Stanley, a former Randolph-Macon player who also coaches at Collegiate (Va.) School. "Smaller goals for smaller kids. As we’ve gone on over the years, we’ve formalized it. We try to teach kids to play the game the right way. We’ve tried to focus on the absolute basics of the game. The smaller size makes it easier for the kids to understand and it makes it more realistic."
Other sports are moving in a similar direction. US Youth Soccer will mandate small-sided games for ages 12 and under beginning in 2017. USA Hockey has seen tremendous success with its cross-ice initiative.
Will people buy into small-sided youth lacrosse?
Moreau also is the founder of Leading Edge Lacrosse, a program built on using small-sided competition to develop players.
"We emphasize moving — pass and move, go into an open area, clear space for the person with the ball. The small-sided games make it easier to teach and show, but there’s a lot of pressure to go 10v10 and people will go somewhere else where they let them do it," Moreau said. "I’m excited when the push comes from top down and US Lacrosse can reinforce it."
Developing Athletes, Not Lacrosse Players
US Lacrosse has long advocated that young athletes continue to play multiple sports for numerous reasons — learning different skills and game situations, preventing injury due to overusing the same muscles and avoiding burnout among them.
Emily Sterling, a high school freshman from Bel Air, Md., who recently committed to play lacrosse at Maryland, played club soccer and rec basketball through middle school and has competed in cross-country and track in high school. Sterling plays lacrosse for the nationally renowned Skywalkers club.
"They encourage and promote the girls playing other sports," said Mark Sterling, her father. "If you’re at a practice and you have to leave early to go to soccer practice, you just walk off and they say good luck and have fun."
Most college coaches say they prefer to recruit multi-sport athletes. And recent data indicates that the elite athletes in one sport often played other sports through their formative years. In 2014, the United States Olympic Committee surveyed athletes that competed in the Olympics from 2000 to 2012. It found that through age 14, the typical Olympic athlete competed in three sports and even through age 18 competed in at least two sports.
Developing Elite Players
The changes that US Lacrosse is proposing would have an immediate impact at the youth level, but by no means is the LADM only about beginning players.
"This is not just a youth-focused initiative," Smith said. "When they reach the stage where competition is important, we want them to have all the skills to be successful. We’re looking forward to working with our national teams and events staff to expand opportunities for players that want to achieve a higher level of play."
A key to that development is ensuring quality coaching. US Lacrosse, through its Coaching Education Program, has provided training to thousands of coaches in the last decade. The curriculum is evolving to make sure the LADM concepts are embedded, and new tools such as coaching progression workbooks and appropriate practice plans for each age group are in development.
Buy-in from coaches is essential to shifting the paradigm.
"The biggest mistake a coach could make is saying this is the way we’ve always done it, or this is how I did it," Rausch said. "Coaches have to be progressive. We can’t look at it as this how we did it 20 years ago. At 3d, we’re constantly evaluating drills. We record them and look to see what’s working and what’s not."
Elite players also require competition, and while the LADM recommends avoiding the rush to full field until players have developed the proper skills, it does support appropriate competitive opportunities.
"This isn’t anti-competition where all they do is practice all the time," Smith said. "We want practices to be more competitive, we want them to have more touches, we want them to have more fun. We don’t want them put in a position where long-term player development gets put behind someone looking for the immediate win. We want the kids put first."